THE BLOG
01/12/2011 01:05 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Hope in Haiti's Youth

Six weeks ago, I was walking down a steep and rocky road near our Port-au-Prince base in Haiti. For the first time in almost three years of working in Haiti, I was struck by what it truly means to have a country of 70 percent youth. Everywhere I turned there were small children and the older teens who watch over them. Fresh-faced, open, vulnerable. It made me hopeful and sad at the same time. The physical and emotional harshness of life here ages people quickly: disease, accidents, and extreme poverty end lives so early and so frequently. Add to that the earthquake that devastated the country one year ago today. As I looked around, I once again wondered -- where are the visionaries, the leaders? Who will guide these children?

A few hours later, I began to see the answer in Haiti's greatest untapped resource: its youth. I watched Samuel and his brother Samson, ages 21 and 20, lead a sustainable agriculture workshop to group of about 150 children at Nadine's orphanage in nearby Carrefour-Feuilles; most of these children were orphaned during the earthquake. The brothers, from a poor family in Southern Haiti, are part of a youth leadership training program called Nouvelle Vie Haiti, a program of the International Association for Human Values (IAHV). In addition to teaching these orphans, with just a $15,000/3-month UN contract, these brothers, along with two other Nouvelle Vie youth leaders, have taught 750 families how to grow their own food using just the resources they have on hand, which in Haiti, consists of mostly garbage.

Samuel shows the orphans two demonstration gardens: one is an old tire cut in half and the other a discarded rice sack. Both are filled with soil mixed with composted organic kitchen and animal waste; the seeds come from food the boys themselves had eaten. Small seedlings are poking their heads out. The children and staff are astounded. Samuel tells to the children "We are all one family who must take care of each other. This neighborhood belongs to us, this environment belongs to us. We have to treat the environment with respect, because it is our home." The children, ages 5 to 13, look up to him, soaking in his every word.

The orphans are accustomed to visitors: international feeding programs come and go for a day or a week at a time while visiting officials assess and plan. But the struggle for food is a daily reality. That these children can learn how to grow food and help feed themselves is a revelation. That they are being taught to do so not by groups of foreigners but by other young Haitians is a revolution.

Samuel and Samson Berlus were like hundreds of thousands of Haitian youth. Their parents struggled to feed eight children, sacrificing their own needs to put them through high school and even a year of college. Haitians cling to education as the source of hope, the ticket to America. When I first met Samuel, he was barely 19. He told me he was going to be a big doctor in America and become very rich so he could send money back home to his family. But the more likely story is that Samuel and Samson would end up doing odd jobs to help put food on the table and educate their younger siblings. That's what their older siblings did; that's what other youth in their community do. The sense of possibility steadily shrinks into a hardened resignation that things can never change in Haiti. This is reinforced over and again by failed leadership, unmet promises, and broken trust.

When asked to define a leader on that first day of the youth leadership training program in 2008, Samuel responded "a leader is someone who takes power and money from people." Since that time his views have changed. He and 350 classmates are learning that true leadership means taking responsibility for both oneself and one's community. The stress of poverty, the trauma of the earthquake, and the loss of loved ones fills the mind with fear, insecurity, anger, and hopelessness; a sense of victimhood that limits the drive and capacity to lead. The unique cornerstone of Nouvelle Vie Haiti is to shift the mindset of an entire generation. Samuel learned to manage his personal trauma through meditation and breathing, and then was able to move forward to envision local, sustainable solutions to key challenges he and his classmates wanted to address in their communities -- like gender issues, trauma, environmental degradation, and lack of food. Nouvelle Vie Haiti co-creates low-resource solutions to help these youth leaders bring progress to their own country, from within, rather than wait for aid from without.

Then last year's earthquake devastated their already fragile world. When Samuel and Samson and their family found themselves living in a makeshift camp, the brothers put leadership into immediate action: they taught trauma relief techniques to their neighbors; taught them to grow small gardens; even started salsa lessons at night to keep spirits up. "If I'm not serving, I think about how much I've lost. I have no choice but to serve."

Young leaders like Samuel and Samson are not just the future of Haiti -- they are Haiti -- already guiding communities towards recovery. It's our responsibility not to perpetuate Haiti's dependence on our aid, but to strengthen, support and learn from local Haitian leaders.

It had been six weeks since their last visit to Nadine's orphanage. The orphans eagerly show them rice sacks filled with swiss chard and vines covered in tomatoes so bright and dense they look like edible Christmas trees. "It's my dream that my country is no longer a country that is waiting for everything to come from the outside, but a country that can produce for itself. That's what I want to do. That is my responsibility. I'm taking responsibility for changing my country."